End of the Line.
There has probably been no more vivid a symbol of American progress than the train. Though the car might lay claim to first position, the train has more inevitability about it. A runaway train mows down most things in its path; the runaway car is less dangerous. But the very thing that makes trains seem inevitable – they are on rails, with momentum behind them – is also what eventually limits them as well. Though trains still run, they’ve been overshadowed by smaller, more nimble modes of transport, even for huge loads of goods. And just as every train must eventually pull into station, Hell on Wheels had to end after spending five seasons finishing the Transcontinental Railroad. It’s an ending worthy of a show that’s built up a large cast of characters, but some fans may be disappointed in the fates of their favorite characters.
The first half of the fifth season found Cullen (Anson Mount, Mr. Right) in Utah territory, the railroad nearing completion even as he had to negotiate with Chinese workers to make it all fit together. With the return of the Swede (Christopher Heyerdahl, True Blood), things were not looking up for Cullen. As the second half opens, we continue the storylines from the first half, learning the fate of the Swede, Brigham Young (Gregg Henry, Slither), and how the railroad gets built.
There are two basic impulses at work in the Western as a genre. The first is the focus on the lone heroic figure, whether outlaw or lawman. The other is the focus on the town, usually on the frontier. This lets the Western workout questions of responsibility and law, the relation between individual and collective, and the “taming” of the wild through civilization. But it’s not a set relationship, with some Westerns focusing almost exclusively on the individual (like The Wild Bunch, which cares more for the bunch than any townspeople) or the town (Rio Bravo is all about collective action on the part of the townsfolk). Hell on Wheels has always tried to keep a foot in both camps. Cullen is the archetypal individual Western hero par excellence. He’s a lone, stubborn individual with a fantastic motive for revenge. But the backdrop of Hell on Wheels is a mobile town that works on the railroad. We get their stories, interwoven with Cullen’s or not, and the show has not been shy about adding new characters on the regular.
The idea, I assume, is that you come for Cullen’s story, and while you’re there you get to pick and choose which subplots you care about. What it means in practice, however, is that viewers have felt individual seasons were uneven depending on how their favorite non-Cullen story lines played out. The fifth season isn’t really any different. We get the return of the Swede in the first half, but that pushes other stories to the side. The trend continues with the second half.
To the creator’s credit, they try to tie up all the loose ends the show has been dangling for a while now. For the most part, they succeed. There are a few questions left unanswered, but overall we get a strong sense of who ends up where and under what conditions, most of them justified. The downside to this approach is that in coming to an end, the show doesn’t have a good narrative event to wrap the show up, no excuse to trot everybody out and give them a piece of some narrative pie. So the last couple of episodes ramble around through time and space, giving us glimpses into the “present” and “future” of the characters’ lives as a way of concluding their arcs. It satisfies on the level of individual characters, but as a way to end a show that’s always been about relentless forward motion, it doesn’t offer the kind of implacable momentum that the railroad has driven for the previous four seasons.
Also like the previous four (and a half) season, 5.2 gets a solid Blu-ray release. The show focuses more on the wide vistas of Utah this season, but also drains them of a bit of their color. That leaves the 1.78:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer here a bit odd, but satisfying. Detail is strong throughout, especially in close-ups. Colors tend towards the drab, but that seems intentional. Black levels are solid and consistent, with no serious compression artifacts to speak of. The set’s DTS-HD 5.1 audio tracks are marvelous. Dialogue is clean and clear, while the surrounds get used significantly to create environments and atmosphere.
Extras start with a small featurette on each of the remaining episodes, along with three more general featurettes. We get a peek at how the episodes were made, how the show wrapped up, and what the cast remembers most fondly about their time on the series.
Hell on Wheels doesn’t get the spectacular wrap up of shows like Breaking Bad, but these final episodes tie up most of the loose ends in ways that will satisfy fans who’ve come this far. This Blu-ray release maintains the series’ high level of excellence, so fans can pick it up without fear.